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Album Review: Mountain – The Cold Stares

TheColdStares

Listening to some of the tracks on The Cold Stares’ latest album, Mountain, it makes sense that you’re listening to a duo. In fact, some of the haunting man-and-a-guitar tracks are so sparse that it might convince you that you’re listening to a solo bluesman. But on most of the songs here, when the band are cranking out material that wouldn’t seem out of place in the early 90s grunge scene, you’ll swear that there must be a least five members. You’d be wrong. The Cold Stares comprise singer/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins – and that’s it.

Released last year, this would have been right near the top of my end-of-year list. It runs to fifteen tracks, and although your favourites may change from one play to the next, there is no filler here. The songs alternative between the sparse arrangements of dark blues numbers with meatier fayre. Lyrically, the album is an intoxicating fusion of biblical references and Southern mythology. On “Friend of Mine” Tapp howls “Oh, Lord, bless my soul / been standing on the levee since I was six years old”, which, lyrically at least, is the album in a microcosm. There are references to the “Mississippi at my hips,” preachers, muddy water, and the characters that populate these songs often call out to Jesus or God for inspiration in some form or another.

The sparser numbers draw you in to the unfolding tale, where the characters feel real, such as on “The River”, a murder ballad in which Tapp deftly sketches out the grim story of how a Chevrolet came to be sunken at the bottom of a river. “Killing machine” kicks off with the lyric “Another man dead, I didn’t want to kill” before taking us through the protagonist’s thoughts like a haunting movie reel. Best of the slow songs is the title track that closes this collection – an atmospheric meditation about those lost finding their way, played out against a soundscape of acoustic and slide guitar. But if it’s monsters riffs you’re after, or huge slabs of guitar backed by percussive bombast, you won’t be disappointed because the album has all of this in spades. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Gone (Not Dead)”, “Cold Black Water” and “Two Keys and a Good Book” are just a few of the songs that will have you tapping your feet and reaching for that air guitar.

Mountain straddles the worlds of dark acoustic folk and modern electrified hard rock, fusing some blistering riffs with a captivating lyrical theme to produce a powerful listening experience. Although religious imagery abounds, it’s never preachy, and when you read that Chris Tapp is a cancer survivor, who has battled through years of treatment, some of the biblical references make sense. Maybe he found comfort in religion, maybe he was always religious, or maybe I’m simply reading too much into it. Once thing is for sure, whatever the reasons, Mountain is a superb piece of lyrically astute blues-rock that you’ll want to listen to time and again.

Finally, in researching this article, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Mountain is a crowdfunded album, one of the aims of which is to cover the costs of the forthcoming WAYS album! Before its appearance as a 12-track album, WAYS will first be released as a series of 4-track EPs, starting with the acoustic-based “white” EP this June. The promise of new music so hot-on-the-heels of Mountain is fantastic news for fans of The Cold Stares, and I definitely count myself in that number after listening to this fabulous album.

 

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

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Reviews

TV Review – Chernobyl

Chernobyl

Chernobyl is a 5-part drama series produced by HBO/Sky TV. It tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in April 1986. The series shows us how the disaster occurred, its immediate and long-term effects on the lives of many, the heroic efforts of the Soviet people in preventing a disaster from becoming something far worse, and the search to uncover the truth as to how it was allowed to happen at all. We view events through the eyes of three main protagonists: Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) – the scientist given the twin tasks of dealing with the consequences of the disaster and investigating its causes. Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) – a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who accompanies Legasov to Chernobyl, and Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a fictional character created to represent the team of scientists who helped Legasov manage the situation.

After a brief flash-forward to the suicide of Legasov, we are given no time to get to know the characters as we are plunged straight into the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where a routine safety test goes wrong and the unthinkable happens: the core of reactor #4 explodes. All of the radiation measurements taken by plant employees in the immediate aftermath of the accident were reported at 3.6 roentgens, but it was soon acknowledged that this was the maximum reading possible on the devices at hand. “Not great, not terrible” is the verdict of at least two people, one of these being deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov steadfastly refuses to believe that he is dealing with anything but a failed test, ordering his team to pump in water to cool the reactor core. “There is no core,” his astounded engineers continually tell him. Later, when the true level of radiation is measured, it is revealed to be 15,000 roentgens every hour – or twice the level of radiation released by the bomb dropped in Hiroshima.

As the first episode progresses, we witness the efforts of the local firefighters to put out the initial fire, and of the plant engineers hopelessly trying to minimise any leak. We see the residents of Pripyat, a town specifically built to house the employees of Chernobyl, come out to watch as the fire at the plant blazes on the horizon. Meanwhile, the plant director and manager (Viktor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin) insist that everything is under control, joining Dyatlov in their unswerving faith in the Soviet system.

When the Soviet government meet to discuss the accident, it is generally agreed that everything is under control. Boris Shcherbina jokes that the reported radiation level is so low that Chernobyl would be a good place to go if anybody was due an X-ray. There are laughs around the table, and the meeting is quickly adjourned. However, Valery Legasov, patiently waiting his turn, voices his objection, pointing out that everything is far from OK. His arguments and obvious expertise are sufficient to convince General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to dispatch him to the disaster zone, Shcherbina tasked with overseeing the project.

Chernobyl is not an easy watch. There are scenes that are downright horrific, but it’s a story that deserves telling. For every brutal scene, there is an act of heroism, and in each case, you’ll find yourself asking whether you’d have been able to act in the same way. For the most part, these were ordinary people asked to deal with extraordinary circumstances. When three volunteers are required to don diving gear and swim in the radiated waters of the doomed plant to open a valve, meaning almost certain death, they ask why they should do it. Shcherbina’s response is, “If you don’t, millions will die.” Three men step forward. When a team of miners is approached to dig a tunnel through the concrete below the reactor, and excavate a space large enough to house the heat exchanger that is vital to preventing a catastrophic meltdown in the reactor core, they work for weeks in extreme conditions to get the job done. Later, when the worst-case scenario has been averted, teams of men work in 90-second bursts to run out onto the roof of the reactor so that they can shovel the highly-toxic pieces of the graphite, that once covered the reactor core, over the edge in preparation for sealing the leak.

The firefighters who first responded are seen recovering from their burns in the hospital. But what at first appears to be superficial damage turns out to be something far worse. Just as Legasov had explained to stoic Shcherbina, initial recovery is followed by severe blistering of the skin and unimaginable pain as the body’s organs decompose, with death arriving shortly afterwards. We see firefighters and plant workers alike suffering in this way, the makeup department sparing us nothing in depicting the true horrors of death by radiation. Their bodies are laid in what looked like metallic coffins (presumably lead-lined), and buried in a mass grave filled with concrete. Later in the series, the bodies of radiated animals, hunted down and shot by a group of soldiers, suffer the same fate, except without the coffins.

“You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to understand what happened at Chernobyl,” Legasov states in his opening remarks at the trial of those deemed responsible. The final episode makes for compelling television, as Legasov calmly lays out his findings, explaining for those assembled and the viewer alike, just how Chernobyl’s #4 reactor suffered such a catastrophic failure. The trial is intercut with scenes in the control room immediately before and after the accident. Earlier, we’d seen Dyatlov under pressure from the plant’s director to perform the safety test. Now, despite repeated warnings from his senior engineer, Dyatlov orders that the test be carried out, threatening his team with the sack if they fail to comply with his instructions. This scene, allied with Legasov’s analysis, makes sense of the chaotic scenes with which the series started. Near the end of the trial, Legasov points out the inherent flaw in the design of the Boron control rods that formed part of the system’s failsafe system, concluding that if human error was partly to blame, it was only one part of the chain that led to the disaster.

Whilst the whole production is superb, for me, the professional relationship that develops between Legasov and Shcherbina, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård superb in their respective roles, is most noteworthy. Shcherbina is initially sceptical of Legasov’s claims that they are dealing with a disaster on an unprecedented scale, but slowly comes to realise the truth in the scientist’s words. One of the most sobering scenes in the whole series occurs when Legasov is dismayed that Pripyat has not been evacuated, meaning that so many civilians remain in close proximity to the plant. “We’re staying here,” states Shcherbina, the implication being that if they were okay, then the general population would be as well. “Yes, but we’ll be dead in five years,” Legasov replies matter-of-factly. There is no response from Shcherbina, the look on his face telling the viewer everything about his feelings. Later in the scene, the politician receives a phone call informing him that the world now knows about the disaster. “They are afraid to let their kids outside. In Germany,” he says in astonishment as he looks out of the window to see Soviet kids passing by, ignorant to the fact that they are living next to a damaged reactor leaking radiation.

During a break in the trial, Shcherbina laments the fact that he is a nobody – a servant of the state sent to deal with the aftermath of an incident that no one believed was a big issue – “an inconsequential man who has stood next to those who matter” as he tells Legasov. Legasov responds by pointing out that he is just a scientist doing a job that any of his colleagues could have done. Whilst it was him they heard, it was actually Shcherbina who they listened to – the man who made the difference by supplying the almost impossible number of men and vast quantity of materials required for the clean-up operation.

Emily Watson is also excellent in her role as Ulana Khomyuk. As noted in the informative slideshow that closes the final episode, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional but was created to represent the team of scientists who assisted Legasov. It’s shocking to learn that some of these scientists were imprisoned and silenced for speaking out against the Soviet hierarchy’s official explanation of what happened.

Filmed in Lithuania, the production has mastered that concrete-under-grey-skies look that we associate with the Soviet-era. The producers also took the decision to film the actors using their normal voices, and whilst it may seem odd hearing a Scottish miner or a Yorkshire fireman, it is probably better than having the integrity of the series ruined by potential comedy attempts at Russian/Ukrainian accents. Series writer Craig Mazin also wrote the flawless script, and uses it to hammer home the point that in addition to the guilt of key individuals, it was the system that failed. Spend any time reading about the background of this production and you will note that pretty much everything that you are seeing on your screen – all those horrific images, the heroic deeds, the denial from those in charge of overseeing and running the plant – is as accurate as it can be, based on interviews with those who lived, and in most cases died, at Chernobyl. Yes, there are some fictionalised elements of the series, but as Mazin points out:

“We never changed anything to make it more dramatic than it was, to hype anything, to amp it up. For us, this is a story about truth. The last thing we wanted to do was fall into the same trap that liars fall into. This is very much a well-researched factual dramatic representation.”

Growing up in the 1980s, there was always the possibility of a nuclear war. Admittedly, this fear was distant and for most of the time, you could push it to the back of your mind. Chernobyl was the fear of a nuclear disaster made real. Not a war, or as a result of some surprise attack by a foreign power, but a terrible consequence of poor decisions made within a system. An oppressive political system where fear of others in the chain of command was enough to compel people to take the wrong actions, and a physical system designed so that there was no effective failsafe against such actions. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. I still have a vivid recollection of sitting in the college library, reading about it in the newspaper in the days following the incident, and its significance is one of the reasons why I chose it as a key point in the backstory of one of my characters in my fictional novel. Now it has a well-researched and brilliantly produced television series to honour those who suffered. Make no mistake, this is a landmark piece of television that demands viewing.

 

 

 

Writing

Book #3 Progress Report – June 2019

writing

Readers of my blog are probably due a progress update. As I often say on these pages, it is slow progress on the writing front during the summer months, with all manner of activities competing for my time. Our garden is pretty easy to maintain, but nevertheless, a bit of care is needed here and there. With the weather improving (well, admittedly, it’s bucketing it down at the moment), there’s more walking opportunities, more holidays and recently I’ve been pretty busy at work. One of the downsides of being a software engineer and author is that after a long day in front of a computer screen, the last thing you feel like doing is writing a new chapter or even fine-tuning something that you’ve already written.

Well, if you think all of this is my way of laying the ground for bad news, then think again. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m pleased to announce that work on Monkey Arkwright’s latest adventure, The Well of Tears, has reached the halfway stage. Kind of.

It’s worth noting that in my previous progress report (in March), the old scoreboard was reading 10 chapters / 21,000 words. Fast forward to June and that’s ticked over to 19 chapters / 41,000 words. I was going to wait until I’d finished the next chapter before getting the bugle and bunting out and announcing that I’d reached the halfway mark, but the next chapter requires a bit of thought and might take a couple of weeks to chisel out. By the time that that chapter is done, I’ll probably be just over halfway.

All the usual caveats apply: this is only a first draft, but I do take my time with the chapters and do plenty of editing, proofreading and using Microsoft Word’s text-to-speech function as I go. I’m still aiming to complete the first draft before the end of the year, before commencing with any re-writes and tweaking the plot and characters as necessary.

I know there are at least a handful of people waiting for a resolution to that cliffhanger at the end of Black Hearts Rising, and I’m doing my level best to make sure the work-in-progress lives up to what’s come before, finishing off the trilogy in a way that does justice to the story arcs I’ve set in motion.

In the meantime, thanks for reading my blog and for buying and reading my books.

Reviews

Album Review: Fever Breaks – Josh Ritter

Fever Breaks

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ritter’s music since his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away. That album unfolds like a richly detailed novel, with diverse themes ranging from scientific discovery, polar exploration, murder, and there’s even a love story song featuring an archaeologist and a mummy. Fever Breaks is his 5th album of the decade and his 10th overall, and once again, it makes for a compelling listen. Recorded in Nashville, the album was produced by fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, and here Ritter is backed by Isbell’s band – the 400 Unit.

Josh Ritter’s music has never been overtly political, but in this case there are a couple of tracks that address some pressing issues in the US. The album’s moody centrepiece, “The Torch Committee” has Ritter speaking his chilling words in an almost matter-of-fact manner. There’s talk of by-laws being breached, the process of law, names being crossed off a list and “the truth of rumours lately heard, that there come monsters in our midst”. Hiding behind the technicalities of the law, the narrator calls forth the “hungry mob and angry crowd” to root out “the root of every evil done” for the supposed good of the people “by means not meant for the light of day”. This is a dark song, the seriousness of the subject matter underlined by Amanda Shires’ haunting fiddle and a menacing guitar that broods in the background, waiting to be unleashed.

On “All Some Kind of Dream”, Ritter returns to the same theme, seeing “children in the holding pens” and “families ripped apart”. “For it seems that these are darker days, than any others that we’ve seen” he sings before wishing that it was all some kind of dream. The upbeat nature of the song belies its underlying core of a nightmare made real; the same kind of message in the style that Dylan was delivering more than fifty years ago.

“Silverblade” sees Ritter use his fingerpicked acoustic to good effect, recounting the tale of a woman who takes revenge on a man who forces himself on her. The story is framed in terms of a lord who owns a castle and the lady who catches his eye, but it is impossible not to read this as an allegory to recent stories related to the #MeToo movement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A couple of tracks benefit from the muscular backing provided by the 400 Unit. “Old Black Magic” sounds like it was dredged up from the bottom of a swamp: Ritter growling away about that “old black magic rolling in” whilst the music rises in the background – all gnarly guitars and moody keys. The anthemic “Losing Battles” features some trademark Ritter lyrics, words tumbling out at a fair old rate before you’ve even had a chance to digest what you’re hearing. “From the apple tree, I ripped a snake, It was a poison but I knew its worth. Kept it in a box of wood, Fed it all my sins and apples.” I’m not sure what all of that means – it probably includes a healthy dose of biblical imagery – but when you hear him singing with utter conviction, he makes you believe in something! On “A New Man”, he sings about a personal evolution, sounding not unlike a latter-day Springsteen, but the style is all his own and this is a track that builds beautifully both lyrically and musically throughout its running length.

Whilst I wouldn’t pick this as my favourite Josh Ritter album (let’s face it, it’s got stiff competition), Fever Breaks is another well-crafted piece of work. There are a couple of tracks that see a bit humdrum by his high standards, but most of the songs are strong, his trademark lyrics are used to full effect, and the fact that he’s recorded the album with Jason Isbell and his band give the album a subtle twist. It’s not markedly different from the sound of his other albums but it’s a welcome wrinkle on yet another fine album from one of the 21st century’s premier songwriters.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

 

Events, Travel

New Project – Rob On Holiday

Anybody who read this week’s Q & A on Curled up with a good book will have seen me talking about my love of family holidays. You may have also noticed my comment about us becoming well-known at a certain hotel in Spain for our comedy holiday videos where we rope in the entertainment team and generally act the goat for the camera.

All of this leads me nicely to announcing a small side-project that was actually my eldest daughter’s idea. Lauren suggested that we re-brand her YouTube channel as “Rob On Holiday”. In addition to the aforementioned comedy videos, we’ve also undertaken a few city breaks in the last 15 months and in each case, we’ve done a fair bit of filming. Generally, this is just to capture our visit for family videos but on a recent visit to Brussels, for the first time, we specifically did a few pieces to camera. Where possible, we’ll be doing a short 5-minute video showcasing what the city has to offer, and an additional video that gives a brief overview of the hotel at which we stayed. Combined with a lot of previous footage, including trips to Disney World, and a few more city breaks in the coming months, we think that we’ll have enough material to make an interesting video channel.

We’ve also created a web site where we’ll include the finer details of various elements shown in the video. This may be a detailed report on some attraction or a city’s transport network or simply a restaurant that we visited. I’m just the figurehead for this website – most of the content will be created by my daughters Lauren and Rachel. You can find the website here:-

https://robonholiday.home.blog/

Just to be clear, this is all for a bit of fun. We are not being paid for any of this, and all views are our own. Hopefully, in addition to making the videos entertaining, we aim to be informative as well. Before we go on any city break, we do our research and this includes watching videos on YouTube. We’ve noticed that many such videos are just raw footage, aren’t edited and don’t give you much on the type of details that you really need to know: e.g. how do I use the transport system.

So, without further ado, here is our first city break video: Brussels:-